Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show that I keep revisiting; a flawed show, a funny show, a beautiful show, a show very tied to its context (the turn of the millennium), and a show that, in some respects, promotes the mistaken ideologies of our post-Christian culture. But it discusses so many of the important issues of our time with flair, creativity, and “emotional resonance” (Joss Whedon’s stated goal) that even when I disagree with the conclusions it promotes (“Religion [is] creepy”, Christians “can’t begin to understand” supernatural forces, There’s “nothing conclusive” in the evidence for God’s existence), I love that it made me think about the issues and questions it explored.
In honor of the fact that this week Logo (some random cable channel) is airing Joss Whedon’s 10 favorite Buffy Episodes,* I thought I’d write about my 10 favorite Buffy episodes, not letting myself include any of Joss’s favorites. I also didn’t include any season finales, in part because, with the exception of “Restless”, they’re seldom work as stand alone episodes. Nor, sadly, did I include any Halloween episodes, which I love and watch on October 31 every year, but would have made the list too long. Finally, I’ve tried to rank them in order of which episodes I like best, not in chronological order.
10. “The Freshman” (Season 4): This is an easily forgotten episode in which Joss, as writer and director, does average work. The plot is predictable and episodic; the villain, Friday, is nothing special, easily overcome, and does no lasting damage to anything, really. But its average-ness is what I like so much about this episode. As the first episode of Buffy beyond high school, it’s also risky in its conventionality – Can the old formula still work? Can Xander still fit in? The answer is yes, wonderfully. The lightness and joy of Xander’s and Buffy’s friendship, wherein Xander’s love empowers Buffy, is perfectly shown, so much so that whenever I feel lonely and out of place, I want to watch the final scenes again. Finally, I think it might be one of those episodes that introduces the show quite well. Next time someone asks “what’s that Buffy show all about?” show them “The Freshman.”
9. “Angel” (Season 1): This is the episode that reveals Angel as a vampire, and in a very real way begins the plot arcs that will dominate all of Buffy and Angel. I once had a theory that this episode is all of the series Angel presented in 43 minutes. Though I quickly dismissed this idea, I still think this episode is one of the most enjoyable and surprising to watch after one has watched Angel the series. It is in this episode that both David Boreanaz and Julie Benz foreshadow, in their acting and chemistry, the painful aesthetic that will dominate Angel seasons 2 and 3, and in which Boreanaz and Sarah Michelle Gellar finally prove to the audience that Buffy’s and Angel’s romance can be interesting.
8. “Life Serial” (Season 6): Though “Grave” includes the most grace-filled and downright Christ-like scene in season 6 (Xander and Willow on the bluff), I’ve always found it a clunky episode. That’s why I choose “Life Serial” as my favorite in Season 6. Gellar gets into full “I love Lucy” mode with the mummy-hand, and the Trio show their best side, which is to say, utter farce. The Star Wars van with the flawed death star design and the imperial-march-playing horn are golden. And kitten poker. We can’t forget kitten poker.
7. “The Initiative” (Season 4): I like Riley. He’s so… nice? (Plus, as Buffy says, “have you seen his arms? Those are good arms to have.”) This episode lets Mark Blucas show us what he has to offer, both as an actor, and as a character. He may not be Spike or Angel (those cheekbones and forehead aren’t a dime a dozen), but he’s something Buffy both wants and needs for a time and one of Joss’s more interesting explorations of American manhood. The problem is that Joss is just more interested, and puts more creative energy, into the question of what it means to be a British man (see Giles, Angel, Wesley, and Spike). Speaking of Spike, this episode also includes the by-turns-disturbing-and-hilarious Spike and Willow on Willow’s bed scene, which is one of the best in the series.
6. “Storyteller” (Season 7): Like “The Zeppo,” this is a unique episode, in that it is mostly seen from a supporting character’s perspective, and also it epitomizes its season. Andrew is ridiculously comic and thoroughly entertaining, so much so that we are affronted when Buffy steps in and asks us to be dour and take sin seriously; but the redemption through tears at the end of the episode reveals Buffy’s love and lightness in a new and refreshing way—she is becoming, we see, the leader we need her to be.
5. “I only have eyes for you” (Season 2): This episode encapsulates season 2 for me. More than most episodes in the series it weaves its episode plot (a seemingly forgettable ghost story) into the season plot (Buffy’s crippling grief at Angel’s transformation into Angelus) so perfectly, and with such redemptive force, that I almost wish it were the season finale. It also comes in the middle of a batch of strong episodes, including “Passion” and “Phases” that may very well be the strongest run of episodes in the series.
4. “Who are you?” (Season 4): Did I really choose three episodes from season 4? I did. I like season 4. So sue me. The overall plot of the season is weak, but there are so many good, single episodes, especially “Restless” which I would have included too, if Joss hadn’t already picked it. Why “Who are you”? Well, I love watching Eliza Dushku play Buffy. Somehow Dushku playing Buffy makes me love and care for Faith in a new way. I’ve sometimes thought Faith was my favorite character in Buffy and Angel, and this episode is a big part of that. It lets us see, as Joss uniquely can show, how characters are not so much tied to actors as we think they are – Gellar can be Faith. Dushku can be Buffy. And when they switch back, some transformation has taken place, in which our love for Buffy has transferred onto Faith in such a way that Faith can, at last, be saved… by Angel… but that’s in another episode.
3. “Amends” (Season 3): I’m ambivalent about the first 2/3 of this episode. The First is kind-of an annoying villain. Angel’s guilt and torment gets boring and redundant real fast. But then the last two scenes kick in, and… lets just say I’ve never not cried at Angel’s “Am I a righteous man?” speech. Joss achieves a level of writing, and Boreanaz and Gellar achieve a level of acting, that is both Shakespearean and, strangely, Pauline. If there is an episode in which Joss gets closest to Tolkienean Eucatastrophe, it’s in this episode, where the Universe reveals itself to be personal and loving in its mercy toward Angel, and snow falls in Southern California, which is the most incredible miracle of all.
2. “The Zeppo” (Season 3): In this episode, Nicholas Brendon so perfectly captures Xander’s journey from cowardice and insecurity to masculinity and heroism that one almost wishes the show could turn into Xander the Regular Guy for a while. Xander’s escapades (while the main characters save the world in the background) take him through so many of the Western rites of manhood that I often forget that this is not a multi-episode arc. In the end, I love Xander’s achievement of a zen-like serenity in the face of death: “Me? I like the quiet.” Whedon thinks he’s a champion of the “strong female character” and perhaps he is, but Whedon’s male characters often reveal themselves to be his real masterpieces of contemporary television writing. Speaking of male characters, let’s not forget the important part that Oz plays in this episode, conveniently eating the bad guy (while a werewolf) and retaining no memory of it other that his “strangely full” feeling the next day.
1. “Fool for Love” (Season 5): I can’t believe Joss didn’t include this one on his list. Season 5, and all of Buffy would be much poorer, even incomplete, without this episode, as would every fan of Spike/Buffy. This is the episode wherein Spike becomes both much more human and much more of a threat to Buffy than ever before. His inability to know whether he wants to kiss Buffy or to kill her is so tangible, so visceral, that we think, as an audience, that Joss has just shown us love at its most raw, its most real. But silly us. If we think this is the be-all-and-end-all of love, we are the fools mentioned in the episode’s title; though Buffy lures us in with the promise of dark and twisted romances of pain, this it not the show’s deepest revelation. True love begins to be revealed only in the final scene of the episode, where Spike literally lays down his weapons, so lately taken up to kill the slayer, and sits silent beside the weeping Buffy, a foretaste of that most beautiful love that will not come for another two seasons, in the abandoned house where Spike delivers his “Hell of a woman” speech to Buffy, the other moment wherein Joss always brings me to tears, and the most romantic, empowering, and true moment of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
*Joss’s 10 favorite are: Prophecy Girl, Innocence, The Wish, Doppelgangland, Hush, Restless, The Body, Once more with feeling, and Conversations with Dead People.